Coffin sliding – urban myths vs the law

The procedure of “coffin sliding” is one of the devices employed in the funeral trade for moving coffins to adjacent plots to remedy errors and other changes following their initial interment [1]. Whilst its use is only infrequently reported, to date it has featured in four consistory court determinations, here. The associated law is discussed below with reference to the most recent reference to “coffin sliding”, Re Chevington Cemetery [2023] ECC New 3.

Re Chevington Cemetery [2023] ECC New 3.

The recently circulated decision is yet another example of an incorrect interment made by the professionals involved – in this case the Northumberland County Council. Wood Ch. noted:

“[17]. In the circumstances of this case it is not necessary to look beyond the Court’s ruling [i.e. Re Blagdon Cemetery [2002] Fam 299] that a simple error in administration, such as burial in the wrong grave, the exact circumstances here, can form a ground upon which a faculty for exhumation can be granted. The Court advised that in such circumstances it may be for those responsible or the cemetery to apply for exhumation: that has not occurred here but in underwriting the cost of petitioning the outcome is the same”.

The Head of Neighbourhood Services made contact with the widow of the deceased who had been erroneously buried; the Court noted that she respected the position of the Petitioner and “as such, would not oppose the exhumation…and his reinterment in [plot number] CA11 as intended. The only specific request they make is, if at all possible, for the grave wall between CA11 and CA12 to be removed so that [the Petitioner’s] coffin can be moved to the adjacent plot without being raised above ground level” [17], i.e. “coffin sliding”.

It is uncertain whether it was the family or the Council which sought this condition, although it would appear that only the Council would benefit. Although it was not included as a formal condition of in the court’s determination, “[i]n so far as it is practicable to do so, the court [considered] it should be honoured” [21]. The judgment concluded:

“[22] …the faculty is granted on the following conditions, namely that any terms imposed by the Environmental Health Department of Northumberland County Council are complied with and that the costs arising from and incidental to the exhumation and re-interment are met by the Council”.


“Coffin sliding”

As we have noted earlier in Re St Andrew Horbling [2022] ECC Lin 2, in his outline of the legislation associated with “coffin sliding”, Bishop Ch. stated (emphasis added):

“[10]. I am satisfied that such a procedure would not constitute exhumation of the body because at all times the remains would not be lifted from the ground but remain at the depth at which they were buried. A Faculty is required for this process because it interferes with human remains after burial, which would be unlawful without lawful permission, but because it is not an exhumation the legal framework set out in In Re Blagdon 2002 Court of Arches does not apply”.

This is consistent with the definition of “exhumation” in the Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2015 as amended, infra, which do not address coffin sliding or the role of columbaria – likewise, the Court of Arches’ considerations in Re Blagdon and Bishop Cristopher Hill’s “Theology of Burial” (although the latter includes a reference to Isola di San Michele, Venice) [2]. Regardless of the absence of such a reference, the principle of the permanence of Christian burial will be common to all forms of “burial”.

Above- and below-ground burials – within faculty jurisdiction

In Re Astwood Cemetery [2014], Worcester Const. Ct, Mynors Ch, which concerned chambers below the surface of the ground, the Chancellor stated:

“[35]. It would be possible to argue that the storage of containers containing human remains in small chambers beneath plaques…is equivalent to the storage of ashes in a columbarium. There are many examples of columbaria at cathedrals, churches, cemeteries and crematoria in various countries; and the common feature is that the cremated remains are stored for a limited period in a chamber marked by a commemorative plaque, in exchange for a fee. The columbarium may be above or below ground, or within the crypt of a church or other building…”

[36]. I am not aware of any reported authority on the point, but it has probably always been assumed that a faculty is always required for exhumation – that is, any kind of exhumation. But that would of course include the removal of cremated remains from a columbarium.

[68]. …the very wide definition of “exhumation” […] includes the removal of human remains from catacombs, mausoleums, vaults and columbaria. The initial deposit of remains in such a location may have been intended to be permanent, in which case the normal presumption against removal should apply. But in some cases there may have been no such intentionthere would seem to be no particular distinction according to whether the deposit was above or below ground level – what matters is the intention of those responsible at the time.”

Our post, Time-limited storage of cremation “ashes”, (15 December 2015) noted that following the Astwood judgment there were subsequent changes in legislation and also further change in this area. Currently, in the Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2015, as amended [3] (“the FJR)”, the Interpretation in 2.2.—(1) states:

“’exhumation’ includes the removal of a body (or part of a body) or of cremated human remains from a catacomb, mausoleum, vault or columbarium [4].

Furthermore, the revised rules no longer permit the use of “Additional Matters Orders” for “the exhumation or other disturbance of human remains, formerly available through section 11(8) Care of Churches and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1991.

This leaves little room for interpretation: in most cases, the removal of a body (or part of a body) or of cremated human remains from a catacomb, mausoleum, vault or columbarium will be an “above ground” operation [5], but under the FJR will be regarded in law as “exhumation”

Above- and below-ground burials – outwith faculty jurisdiction

The Guidance Notes to the Ministry of Justice Application for a licence for the removal of buried human remains (including cremated remains) in England & Wales state:

  • A licence is required to disturb non-cremated remains whether or not they are buried or kept above ground in a vault, tomb, mausoleum, sarcophagus or columbarium.
  • A licence should be sought for buried cremated remains in a container.
  • The movement of cremated remains that are held above ground (e.g. in a vault or columbarium) does not require a licence (but may require the consent of the owner or deed holder).
  • Scattered remains are not considered to be buried and no licence is therefore required if they are to be disturbed.


[1] In evidence to the Court in Re Fairmile Cemetery Lower Assendon [2017] ECC Oxf 2 (at [34]), it was suggested that this might be undertaken without informing the family of the deceased. 
[2] C Hill, “Note on the theology of burial in relation to some contemporary questions”, (2004) 7 Ecc LJ 447.
[3] As amended by the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Care of Churches Measure 2018, Schedule 3, Part 2, the Faculty Jurisdiction (Amendment) Rules 2019 and the Faculty Jurisdiction (Amendment) Rules 2022.
[4] See Columbaria in churches – a short note. (11 August 2021).
[5] A vault (French voûte, from Italian volta) is a self-supporting arched form, usually of stone or brick, serving to cover a space with a ceiling or roof. 

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Coffin sliding – urban myths vs the law" in Law & Religion UK, 25 April 2023,


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